News in focus: Fundraising fights for public trust

What's the most effective approach for initiatives tackling the public image of charities, asks Annie Kelly.

Anyone who works for a charity will have come across a non-believer.

A cab driver shouting that all charities waste your money. A dinner party guest spitting bile over 'chuggers'. A journalist telling readers that their donations will end up funding a holiday home in the Canary Islands.

Until recently, apart from a relentless wringing of hands, little or no effort has been made by the sector to collectively address any of the misconceptions that build walls between charities and the giving public.

But now several lights have appeared on the horizon. Following a year of particularly hostile attacks on face-to-face fundraising, several cross-sector initiatives have sprung up in a bid to preserve public trust in charitable institutions.

Alan Gosschalk, the director of fundraising at Shelter, is leading the way with a new initiative that aims to provide a co-ordinated response to attacks on charity fundraising.

The news that he intends to work in collaboration with two other new initiatives - the self-regulatory fundraising body and Professor Adrian Sargant's website - is an even better indication that support for a collective approach is gathering momentum.

Allay public suspicions

Discussions are continuing about how each initiative intends to tackle intangible issues such as accountability and transparent spending costs, but so far Gosschalk has suggested hiring a permanent member of staff who will provide a central point of contact for press enquiries on fundraising stories.

The thinking behind the other two initiatives is similar: allay public suspicion of charity spending by giving people the facts and explain why and how their donations are spent. The new self-regulatory body also wants to give the public an opportunity to make complaints about aggressive or inappropriate fundraising.

But does this go far enough? Jai Mukherjee, director of marketing at think tank New Philanthropy Capital doesn't think so.

"All the new initiatives are necessary but by no means sufficient," he says. "They provide short-term stop-gaps, but if we want to change things long-term then the sector has to fundamentally change the way people interact with charities."

Mukherjee says the new initiatives shouldn't take a defensive approach to explaining charity spending "because it just sends out messages that they've got something to justify.

"The sector needs to start a discussion about how to describe the impact of their work better, so that people see why they are effective channels for social change and do more than just hand over cash."

Marketing expert Alice Huntley, deputy strategic planning director at advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, also warns against tackling issues of administration and fundraising costs head-on.

"People will always try to find reasons not to give," she says. "Any campaign that tries to disprove beliefs about charity spending will be reiterating the fact that a proportion of a donation doesn't get to the cause, and that jars with people."

Huntley thinks the answer lies in creating a more participatory approach to giving.

"The problem a lot of people have with face-to-face fundraising is that they think they're being conned, because they didn't realise the person on the street was getting paid to do the job," she says. "But if you said to donors 'your £10 a month helped pay this fundraiser's £25,000 salary and their work generated more than twice their salary in one year', then I think people might be more inclined to think of fundraisers as a necessity."

Need for charity backing

Trying to communicate new messages to a mass audience is a problem that Amanda Delew, ex-director of the Giving Campaign and now a fundraising consultant, knows well.

"At the Giving Campaign we struggled to get even something as simple as GiftAid understood," she says. "Big brands spend millions on sending the same message out to customers year after year, so changing attitudes towards giving will be a long, tough and frustrating process."

But she believes the hardest challenge any new cross-sector initiative will face is getting charities to back it.

"The issues relating to public trust in fundraising and spending have been around for years, but it hasn't been properly tackled because no charity has any immediate reason to invest in an initiative that can't provide any measurable guarantees," she says.

"The success of any cross-sector initiative tackling this rests on the sector proactively supporting it. That will rely on charities realising that the long-term future of charitable giving depends on changing attitudes."

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